Friday, October 09, 2009

McMahon, WWE Seek Mainstream Credibility

By Nathan L. Gonzales

The day before Linda McMahon (R) officially announced her candidacy for Senate, political reporters at major media outlets received a glossy black folder from World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. that included full-color brochures, press clippings, a DVD and a personalized cover letter from the WWE’s chief operating officer, which mentioned her potential run against Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).

Since McMahon’s announcement, political coverage has been reduced to poor puns, and because of the stigma surrounding professional wrestling, her candidacy has largely been dismissed.

But stranger things have happened in politics.

The McMahon family has proved to be very successful in the entertainment world, and the combination of a crowded Republican primary, Linda McMahon’s commitment to spending considerable personal money, and Dodd’s soft poll numbers creates a scenario where she could win.

And even if she doesn’t win the nomination, the WWE stands to gain more of the mainstream credibility that it craves.

The WWE clearly realized that every story that mentions McMahon will also mention the company.

“It was strictly done to educate people about WWE,” Robert Zimmerman, WWE’s vice president of public relations and corporate communications, said of the slick media packets. “There’s been a lot of evolution in the company that the media has not been paying attention to.”

The WWE has recently been touting itself as a PG company after a few years of racier content. That will be used by McMahon’s opponents.

Zimmerman spent six years as vice president of public relations for Fox News beginning in 1998, so he’s familiar with the political players and publications in Washington.

The promotional DVD that reporters received in the packet was less than a week old because it included a clip of former “The Price Is Right” host Bob Barker hosting WWE’s “Monday Night Raw” program on Sept. 7. It also included a couple of quick clips of McMahon without identifying her. According to Zimmerman, the DVD was the regular corporate “sizzle reel” that is updated every six months or so.

Simultaneously, McMahon launched her Senate campaign in an unorthodox manner.

On Sept. 16, she handed over her reins as CEO to her husband, Vince (who is already WWE chairman and is the face of the company), and commenced a weeklong television buy in the expensive New York City market almost a year before the Aug. 9, 2010, primary. Approximately 25 percent of general election voters in Connecticut watch NYC television.

The campaign rollout included television ads during the Notre Dame football game and on the season premiere of “Saturday Night Live,” as well as full-page ads in the New York Times and Hartford Courant. It’s just the beginning of what McMahon says will be a $30 million campaign. Most of that will come from her own pocket because she’s not accepting contributions from political action committees and she’s capping individual contributions at $100.

Veteran Republican media consultant Mike Murphy was openly critical of her strategy.

“Wresting [sic] Queen McMahon to run/lose for Senate in CT. Idiotic, but it will cost Simmons $$. Shame on her payday seeking R consultants,” Murphy wrote on his Twitter account, going after McMahon’s consultants, which include media consultant Scott Howell, pollster Hans Kaiser and former National Republican Senatorial Committee Political Director Mike Slanker.

Murphy’s not the only GOP consultant grumbling. But the premise of the criticism, that McMahon absolutely can’t win, may be wrong.

“She’s more serious than people realize,” according to a Senate GOP strategist who is not taking sides in the race. “She’s hired smart people and taking their advice. Most businesspeople don’t [when they run for office].”

Murphy’s criticism implies that McMahon’s consultants are taking advantage of her naiveté.

In reality, the 61-year-old Greenwich resident helped grow the WWE from 17 employees to 500 employees and a company that made more than $525 million in revenue last year. The Stamford headquarters, complete with WWE flag, is visible off Interstate 95.

“None of the McMahons are stupid people,” said Dave Meltzer, editor of Wrestling Observer Newsletter. “They’ve far and away built the most successful wrestling business in history.”

McMahon’s political interest is not a surprise. She’s personally contributed to both parties in recent years (slightly more to Republicans) and was recently appointed by Gov. Jodi Rell (R) to a position on the state board of education.

As a company, the WWE has been involved in registering young voters through the Smackdown Your Vote program, and both President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) delivered video messages to WWE events. Behind the scenes, Lowell Weicker, a former governor and Senator, has served on the WWE board since 1999.

“This is a race to create an image of her,” one GOP consultant said of McMahon’s initial tactics. “My guess is that she wanted to prove she’s a serious candidate and shape the talk about her,” another GOP strategist explained.

McMahon has to walk a fine line between touting her credentials as a successful businesswoman and not being defined by wrestling or her husband. She doesn’t mention the WWE by name in her ads.

Aside from the large shadow of the business, it remains to be seen how McMahon transitions to the role of candidate. “She’s not a dynamic public speaker,” according to Meltzer, who has been covering the wrestling industry for 38 years. “But she’s very smart.”

Former Rep. Rob Simmons currently leads in polls testing the GOP primary, but that’s largely a function of higher name identification. State Sen. Sam Caligiuri is also in the GOP race along with former Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley and libertarian economist Peter Schiff. Foley has personal money and should be able to raise it, and Schiff is raising money from libertarians across the country.

With no runoff, someone could win with significantly less than 50 percent of the vote. And based on Dodd’s current poll numbers, the GOP nominee, whoever it is, will have a fighting chance in the general election. It’s unclear whether the May convention will winnow the field.

It took extraordinary circumstances and a crowded field to get former wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura elected governor of Minnesota. He won the 1998 race as the Reform Party candidate with 37 percent, while then-St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman (R) received 34 percent and state Attorney General Skip Humphrey garnered 28 percent. Ventura was a more charismatic figure.

“They’re not immune to making bad decisions,” Meltzer said of the McMahons, citing the infamous single season of the XFL, Vince McMahon’s failed football experiment, and an unsuccessful restaurant in Times Square as evidence. “Sometimes they taxed themselves and tried to do too much.”

In this case, Linda McMahon really doesn’t have a lot to lose, except for a few million dollars.

If she runs a serious campaign, there is virtually no risk of damaging the family business she helped build that will likely be passed down to her son, daughter and son-in-law, wrestler Triple H.

“If Vince flopped, that’s a different story,” Meltzer said. When the XFL failed, “it took an aura away from Vince” and the business suffered. In this case, there is only an upside for the candidate and the company. “In the fans’ eyes, she’s just Vince’s wife.”

This story first appeared in Roll Call on October 6, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.